Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack, who died Thursday at age 77, was quite the showman. Whenever he took the stage under his nom de musique Dr. John, he slid in with a carved African cane, a necklace of bones, turquoise and beads, and a hat sporting sequins and dyed feather plumes. He sang about voodoo queens, Indian chiefs, junco partners and other New Orleans characters in a coffee-grinder baritone as he played one syncopation in his right hand and another in his left.
Behind the showman, though, was a serious musician and songwriter who wrote classic rock songs with Doc Pomus, formed a jazz band with Art Blakey, won a Grammy duetting with Rickie Lee Jones, and recorded elegant solo-piano instrumentals. He absorbed the lessons of New Orleans blues and R&B so thoroughly that he eventually became as respected as the masters he learned from. The showmanship was important to him—and to his impact on the audience—but it only told half the story. His hometown provided plenty of role models for this two-sided approach to music—none more influential than Professor Longhair.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” Rebennack told me in 1985, “when I walked into a joint and saw this guy wearing a tuxedo with a turtleneck shirt and an Army fatigue hat with a watchband around it. Someone brought out a big plate of shrimps and crawfish, and he at them right there while the band was playing. All the time he was rapping to the people—walla-walla-this and halla-halla-that. when he was finally done eating, he took off the greasy white gloves and started playing those double-note crossovers and over-and-unders and second-line rhythms. He really struck me as someone unique.”
Rebennack eventually became one of the most accomplished disciples of Fess’s push-and-pull piano playing, but he actually got his start as a guitarist. He was the rare white kid who won the trust and acceptance of the local black music scene in those days. His father distributed records to jukeboxes in town, and the young Mac tagged along and met many of the men behind those discs. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, New Orleans music had reached a dizzying creative peak.
“Maybe it’s the climate,” Rebennack suggested. “It’s too hot to hang out inside and watch TV, so people hang out on the front steps and in the bars. Being outside, you just naturally mingle with all the other ethnical [sic] groups: Caribbean, black, Indian, redneck, French and what not. All the different musics get mixed up. They all have to change a little, and something original comes out.”
Fats Domino’s guitarist Walter “Papoose” Nelson taught Rebennack the six-string, and the youngster was touring the South with Jimmy Clanton when he was 16. Soon after that he became a valued studio musician for Ace Records, which scored hits with Huey Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Sea Cruise” by Rebennack’s cousin Frankie Ford.
“Huey inspired me to start writing songs. He taught me a lot of tricknology,” Rebennack recalled in a patois of his own invention. “how to take street chants, jump-rope rhymes or slang sayings and make a song out of it with a melody to match. His song, ‘Don’t You Just Know It,’ came from a popular saying.
“At one time, there were several different sets of Huey ‘Piano’ Smith & the Clowns traveling around. Back then there weren’t all these TV shows, so people didn’t know what singers looked like. If the stuff sounded good, they’d go for it. James Booker was Huey for a while. The musicians didn’t care. They didn’t see color—all they cared about was how well you could play.”
In 1962 at a Florida motel, however, a 21-year-old Rebennack tried to stop a man from pistol whipping his friend and the gang enforcer shot up Rebennack’s left ring finger. That made it hard to fret the strings, so he asked his pal James Booker to teach him organ. He was soon playing the instrument 12 hours a night on Bourbon Street.
“When I started playing keyboards,” Rebennack told me, “I realized that all the piano stuff I had learned from Huey, Fess and Fats I had put into the guitar. Now all I had to do was put it back into the instrument I originally got it from.”
The golden era of New Orleans music came to an end in 1964 when District Attorney Jim Garrison (of JFK assassination conspiracy theory fame) padlocked most of the town’s nightclubs in a crackdown that put nearly 1,000 musicians out of work. Many of them moved en masse to Los Angeles, where they were soon working sessions for Sonny and Cher, Phil Spector and Frank Zappa.
The Californians were fascinated by the new arrivals’ tales of Mardi Gras Indians, parades and debauchery, and Rebennack decided to monetize the situation. He planned to dress up his pal Ronnie Barron in Mardi Gras beads and feathers as Dr. John Creaux the Nightripper to play New Orleans funk. He saw himself as Mac, the playwright and director for a stage show that would star someone else. He never expected to become the star, the Doctor, himself.
“I could tell you 35 stories about how I came up with that name,” Rebennack said, “and most of them would be true. When Ronnie’s manager vetoed the idea, I got pissed off and did it myself. I’d never had any training to be a front man, but over the years of doing it, I got better at it. I made the gigs a mini-Mardi Gras. That’s part of me, and I’m part of it. It’s easier to draw on something that’s part of your life than some Fig Newton of your imagination.
“I can still remember the old Mardi Gras,” he continued, “back when the Indians would make their costumes out of scraps from the swamp and would ride their horses down Claiborne Avenue at dawn, before they made it into a goddamn expressway. I used to love it when an Indian would reach back as if to get an arrow and would pull out a shotgun instead and shoot colored beans into the street.”
The first Dr. John album, 1968’s Gris-Gris, did well, though the elaborate stage show was far more popular. The fourth album, 1971’s The Sun, Moon & Herbs, featured guest spots by Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Ronnie Barron, but proved overproduced and under-focused. The next release, 1972’s Dr. John’s Gumbo, offered wonderful covers of New Orleans R&B classics by Huey Smith, Professor Longhair, Earl King and James Booker.
That was followed by Rebennack’s masterpiece, 1973’s In the Right Place, produced by the singer’s old pal Allen Toussaint and featuring the Meters as the backing band. Rebennack finally blossomed as a songwriter on this session, penning his only top-10 single, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and “Such a Night,” a highlight of The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese. Nearly as good was the follow-up with Toussaint and the Meters, 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo, which later supplied the name of the famous music festival in Tennessee.
After that, however, a nagging drug problem and rising stage costs convinced Rebennack to scale back on the Dr. John show. He didn’t release any new music for five years, but when he released City Lights in 1979, three of the eight songs were co-written with Doc Pomus, the great songwriter behind “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Little Sister,” “This Magic Moment” and many more. It was a partnership that would endure until Pomus died in 1991.
“Any time I’ve had a chance to write with people who’ve been my heroes,” Rebennack told me in 1985, “whether it’s Doc, Allen Toussaint, Gerry Goffin or Bobby Charles, I’ve always tried to take advantage. It always feels good when I have a rapport with someone. With some people, it doesn’t go too far, but with Doc it just kept going and going.”
In 1981, Rebennack released the first of two solo-piano instrumental albums, Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, an acknowledgement of the two facets of his career reflected in his two names. Even on the albums credited to Dr. John, it was easy to tell when they were really Rebennack recordings, especially the tribute albums to Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and Louis Armstrong. Rebennack even formed a jazz band called Bluesiana Triangle with drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman.
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach resurrected the Dr. John persona one last time for the triumphant, super-funky 2012 collaboration, Locked Down. Auerbach provided the “gilded splinters” for Rebennack to walk on by providing the catchy melodies, muscular syncopation and tight Nashville band. Rebennack responded with his best studio performance in years. Throughout his career, he had lots of interests—jazz piano, Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building pop and more—but he was always been at his best in his Dr. John character playing the New Orleans R&B he grew up on.
“I kept changing shows,” he said, “so I wouldn’t get strung out doing just one thing. I did a protest show one time; I had an R&B revue, an oldies-and-goodies show. But people constantly wanted to see the gris-gris show.”
Listen to Paste vault recordings of Dr. John performing in 1978 below. Further down, watch a full concert from the 2006 Newport Jazz Festival.